Cuba Sí, Honduras No?
Friday, September 11, 2009
The Obama administration’s troubling moves in the last two weeks do little to bolster democracy in Latin America.
On the same day last week, with the stated objective of promoting democracy, the Obama administration made it easier for Cuban exiles to visit their families on the island and made it next to impossible for Hondurans to visit the United States. In the interest of defending democracy in Honduras, the administration also rejected elections planned for November. It seems that U.S. diplomats have concluded that the only way to ensure the integrity of Honduran elections is to impose the restoration of ousted president Manuel Zelaya, a would-be autocrat who forfeited his job in June for undermining those elections in the first place.
Most of the world misunderstood the events that led to Zelaya’s legal ouster and his exile on June 28 at the hands of the Honduran military. While some have deferred to the right of the functioning Honduran courts and congress to interpret and apply their own constitution, most governments continue to insist that Zelaya should be restored to power. Unlike most foreigners, Hondurans have read Article 239 of their constitution and have concluded that Zelaya forfeited his legal claim to power by trying to hold on to it by overturning an ironclad term limit. Moreover, Hondurans—most of whom had nothing to do with sending Zelaya into exile—know that Article 375 would hold them legally liable for failing to oppose Zelaya’s crimes.
Regardless of the sincere arguments on both sides, most observers have accepted that Hondurans are virtually united in refusing to allow Zelaya to return to power. Even the demander-in-chief, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, conceded ten days ago that Zelaya’s restoration is “hard to imagine.” There was universal acceptance, grudging or otherwise, that presidential elections scheduled for November 29 represented a path back to recognized legitimacy for the Honduran government.
The administration adopted draconian sanctions against Honduras by cutting aid, revoking the visas of those supporting Zelaya’s ouster, and delegitimizing elections three months before they are even held.
As in many Latin American governments, elections in Honduras are conducted by a nonpartisan tribunal that is a separate and independent branch of government; the four impartial electoral magistrates were chosen for their technical expertise. The date and conditions for this fall’s national elections—to choose a new president and congress—were decreed by Honduras’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal in May. All of the presidential candidates (including the Liberal standard-bearer, Elvin Santos, who was Zelaya’s vice president) were chosen before Zelaya left office. After flirting with the idea of moving up the date for the presidential elections to mollify foreign concerns, Zelaya’s successor has not interfered with the work of the electoral tribunal. Moreover, this same electoral law and tribunal were sufficient to see Zelaya to a narrow victory just four years ago.
But after two months of wrestling with whether or not the events in Honduras even constituted a military coup d’état (and eventually deciding not to decide), the administration adopted draconian sanctions against Honduras by cutting aid, revoking the visas of those supporting Zelaya’s ouster and refusing to issue visas to Hondurans altogether, and delegitimizing elections three months before they are even held.
Because State Department lawyers essentially concluded that Zelaya’s ouster was not a military coup triggering a required response, these tough and blunt measures were clearly discretionary. The fact that these gestures were announced after Zelaya’s most zealous supporters had recognized that he would never be restored to power makes these decisions absolutely gratuitous. The sole impact is to paint Honduras, the United States, and the rest of the international community into a corner by casting doubt on elections that had nothing to do with Zelaya’s ouster other than constituting a rather salutary solution to the whole mess.
Unlike most foreigners, Hondurans have read Article 239 of their constitution and have concluded that Zelaya forfeited his legal claim to power by trying to hold on to it.
For decades, the left has criticized the United States for its alleged failure to respect tiny nations, and the United States has urged these nations to adopt democratic constitutions and institutions worthy of respect. Tangled logic, cynicism, and ideological reasoning have produced a situation where the United States is disrespecting a tiny nation for daring to defend its constitution and institutions against foreign meddling.
It is clear that the clumsy response of the administration is rooted in its desire to run with the pack—in this case a pack led by Hugo Chavez, a man who has cast himself as our principal foe and who has accused the United States of supporting a coup against Zelaya despite our posturing. There clearly is nothing wrong with working in concert with our neighbors, so long as U.S. interests and ideals are advanced in the bargain.
One can only hope that before any permanent damage is done to our credibility or to our friends in Honduras, U.S. policy makers will recognize that what is best for us is supporting elections so the Honduran people can decide what is best for them.
Roger F. Noriega, a senior State Department official from 2001 to 2005, is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which helped organize a visit of Honduran leaders to Washington in July.
FURTHER READING: Noriega has also written on Zelaya’s ouster in “Overlooking Crimes Against a Constitution.” In “Slouching to Populism,” Noriega discusses how embattled democrats in Latin America read the State Department’s reticence as weakness and indifference.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.